In a recent study, two of Immanuel Kant’s theories on experiencing beauty were assessed. The conclusion is that beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but the beholder will need to think about it to appreciate it.

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Philosophy and psychology collide in a recent study on beauty.

Beauty is an ephemeral term. Many of us will find beauty in a tropical beach or a sunset, while others might find beauty in less likely places. However, we all experience beauty somewhere along the line.

In the 18th century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant laid out a couple of theories on beauty – in fact, he is still considered the preeminent authority on the topic. He theorized that beauty requires thought, but that sensuous pleasure can never be beautiful.

Although the claims, at face value, appear challenging to approach scientifically, a study published in Current Biology goes some way toward testing them.

This intriguing new study was carried out by Denis Pelli and Aenne Brielmann at New York University’s Department of Psychology.

Sixty-two people took part in the study. They were asked to rate how much pleasure they felt when they saw an image, ate a candy, or felt a teddy bear. The participants were shown a range of images: some were beautiful, some were just nice, and others were neutral (for instance, a picture of cloth or a chair in a furniture catalog). The beauty of each image and object was rated from 1 to 4.

After the initial round, the participants were asked to rate the images again, but this time they were distracted during the process with another task. The secondary task involved listening to a series of letters, and the participants were required to press a button if they heard the same letter that they had heard two letters previously – a task that requires a great deal of attention.

Once the beauty score data had been analyzed, the team found that, although the reactions to non-beautiful images were not altered, beautiful images took a hit. Pictures that were rated beautiful during the first, non-distracted experiment were rated as less beautiful during the second, distraction task.

The psychologists conclude that Kant was right: beauty does require thought.

The second of Kant’s theories up for dissection does not fair so well. He claimed that sensual pleasures could never be beautiful, but around 30 percent of participants said that they experienced beauty when eating candy or feeling a soft teddy bear.

This second finding was a surprise to the team, so they followed it up with another experiment. They asked participants who had responded “definitely yes” to experiencing beauty when sucking candy to explain their answers. The authors write about their responses, “Most of them remarked that sucking candy had personal meaning for them, like a fond childhood memory. One participant replied, ‘Of course, anything can be beautiful.'”

Although the study was conducted on a small scale, the results are intriguing and generate a range of new questions to be answered. According to the authors, they plan to use further studies to ask, “Are there people who cannot experience beauty? What role does beauty play in decision-making? Is a sense of beauty necessary for creativity? And, is ugliness the opposite of beauty or is it a separate dimension?”

Plenty more investigation will be needed before firm conclusions can be drawn about a topic as nebulous as beauty. However, to be on the safe side, anyone who would like to experience beauty should attempt to do so without simultaneously carrying out a cognitively challenging task.

“Our findings show that many other things besides art can be beautiful – even candy,” Brielmann says. “But, for maximum pleasure, nothing beats undistracted beauty.”

Learn how people’s brains respond to art.